Witches have always been a symbol of female power, ever since men have felt threatened by the capabilities of women. Until 1727, women were often burned, drowned or tortured based off of flimsy evidence, and if anything, these cruel acts were a form of social control as if to set an example to those who would think of stepping out of line. Nowadays – at least in the West – witches mostly exist in popular culture.
The earliest witches were originally either the village’s wise woman, or surprisingly, female brewers; basically anyone who stepped outside of gender norms and took on a more masculine role than the village elders would allow. It was a way to get rid of any threat to the peace within communities or simply a way to get rid of a troublesome neighbour. Sometimes, it was a way to forward your own agenda, as was seen during the Salem witch trials. Women were mostly accused because of religious reasons – it was believed that they were responsible for humanity being kicked out of the Garden of Eden and so were believed to be weaker beings more open to being tempted by the Devil. All of these reasons were used to create a status quo that treated women as if they were inferior, and in that position, it was then easier to punish them. Witch trials were a way to control women and in this age of feminism, it is not surprising that witches have become a symbol of empowerment that has outgrown the cartoonish representation of evil that we bring out every Halloween.
Let’s talk about fiction. The figure of the witch is more and more common on our tv screens, and is becoming increasingly popular. Now we have the concept of ‘good’ witches (I guess we have Glinda to thank for that), the ones we look up to and want to be like. Witches like Hermione Granger or Luna Lovegood or Sabrina Spellman, witches that use their magic for good. But we still make the distinction between good and evil. This distinction about whether a witch can be considered good or evil seems similar to the reasons why women were initially accused of witchcraft. Sometimes there’s no reason, they’re just evil and we have to accept that.
This is perhaps a very whitewashed portrayal of witchcraft in the 21st century. In Africa, for example, many people are still accused of practicing it and are often brutally murdered or banished because of it. Witchcraft can destroy whole lives and yet nothing is really done to promote awareness of this reality. It says something about our privilege that we in the West can have discussions and write articles about witchcraft as a thing of the past and fiction in our society, whilst many men and women still live in fear of being accused of being a witch in other parts of the world. I don’t know enough about this, and I don’t know how many people are aware of it either, but that is something that needs a deeper examination.
When I was in primary school, I was called a weather witch by one of my classmates, because for some reason they found it strange that I checked BBC Weather in the morning. It meant nothing and it was a childish moment, but it just seems so funny that it could be still be seen as a negative thing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to bend reality to their will? But it’s more than that. Witchcraft was a way for a group of people who historically have been very powerless to feel empowered, and that scares the crap out of those who never had to feel powerless because of their gender. It’s a defensive action of a group of people who are scared of losing their position.
Witchcraft isn’t a joke. For most people, however, it is safely in the past and we don’t worry about it negatively impacting our lives. It’s not something we have to deal with anymore. For others, it is still a terrifying label, and so whilst we can be empowered by witches and admire the ones we see on TV, we also have to realise that this is an incredibly sensitive issue that is hugely complex. It is one that, significantly, has not been confined to history, but continues to impact the lives of people today. Because witchcraft can’t be a feminist issue if we abandon those whose lives it still affects in harmful ways.
[Katerina Partolina Schwartz – she/her]